Monday, 18 June 2018

The Two Worst Pieces of Advice Given to Writers (and the Best)

There’s lots of great advice for aspiring writers out there, but there’s two things that are repeated again and again, and I personally think it would be no great loss if nobody advised them ever again. 

The first is, ‘if you want to be a writer, write!’

‘It might seem obvious but,’ begins every published author’s advice ever, ‘stop talking about how you want to be a writer and just write!’

Whenever I heard this, previous to taking my writing ambitions seriously, I’d just think ‘how??’. My brain would start running off the list of ‘excuses’ it had for not writing. No time, no ideas, no clarity on what kind of writer I was, no feedback, no ability. No amount of Nikeslogans made a difference to me. The thing about this mental list is that it’s not really excuses. It’s all real. You probably don’t know how to make the time. You probably don’t know how to identify specific ideas in your endless internal monologue. You probably have no knowledge of what the different kinds of ‘writers’ that actually exist are. You’re probably too embarrassed to ask for feedback. You probably need someone else to tell you where your abilities lie. 

What is going to allow you to go from not really writing to writing isn’t a platitude about just doing it. In my experience, the number one thing that’s going to make a difference is getting  to know writers

Being a ‘writer’ is like being an ‘actor’ or ‘musician’ in that it sounds like a self-indulgent dream for attention and fame rather than a reasonable aspiration (especially to people who don’twant those things). So you need to meet these ethereal beings. Go to a writers festival. Email a journalist you like. Call them. Take a course and ask the tutor to go for coffee. Organise a Meet Up. As soon as you start meeting writers in the flesh, very quickly you will see what being a writer actually looks like. It’s much easier to bake a cake if you’ve grown up in a family with a baking aficionado and you witnessed cakes being baked and assisted in the process countless of times. If you’ve literally never seen anyone do it, you’re going to struggle through the most basic steps and give up by the time it comes to the difficult part. The same goes for something less ‘visible’ like writing or singing or acting. There are still processes behind every art – there’s a craft and a job aspect to every creative ambition, and the sooner you acquaint yourself with it the sooner your romantic dreams will become palpable realities that you can begin to emulate.

The second piece of terrible advice given to hopeful writers is to ‘write every day’. 

There is a shift for everyone who has an ambition, ‘creative’ or otherwise, from that ambition seeming like a ridiculous dream, to it becoming an actual goal for you. When it becomes an actual goal, it really doesn’t matter at what frequency you’re pursuing that goal. Writing every day is a sure-fire way to know that you’re exercising the muscle and cultivating the craft – but lots of people don’t have the resources or need to write every day, and that doesn’t make them ‘not writers’. There’s no sense in feeling like if you don’t carve out an hour or more to write every single day then you’re not really the person for the job. It would be like deciding to run a marathon and then thinking you have to train every single day or you’re not on track. 

The absolute best advice I’ve read regarding this was in a book which said that you only need to write one hour a week to complete a book in one year. What I love about this advice is that not only is it true – time-wise that is enough to reach wordcount – but it’s also helpfully concrete. It’s so important for writers starting out to acknowledge (and physically practice) the dictum that ‘finished is better than perfect’, and the best way to do this is to have an extremely manageable goal. One hour a week is exactly that: it’s quantifiable, and it’s doable – and I say that as a mother of two pint-sized dictators. Once you make that regular time every week, then you may well start writing more frequently or for longer spans of time – but it’s a great initial aim because it allows each writer to discover their own rhythm.

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